Editorials

Homeland Security
Grief

Homeland Security
Marsha A. Willis
"We interrupt this program to bring you a special announcement from officials in the office of Homeland Security. We have received highly credible evidence that up to 45,000 American civilians will be randomly selected to be suddenly and violently killed over the course of the year. Approximately 6,000 of those will be high school students chosen from around the country. Many more citizens, in these same attacks, will suffer disabling injuries that will prevent them from ever regaining their original mobility.

"We are requesting all Americans to be on the absolute highest alert, for only in that way can some of these casualties be avoided. Thank you. And now back to our normal programming…."

If you heard such an announcement would you calmly return to what you had been doing? Would you simply shrug your shoulders and think to yourself, "Oh well…"? Would you think this is someone else’s problem and that there’s really nothing you can or should do about it?

Although the announcement is not real, it could be. Every year in the United States approximately 45,000 able-bodied American civilians are killed on our roads and highways.

45,000 Americans. Every year.

And, yet, we tell each other that we feel safer driving than flying. We tell ourselves that we are in better control of our lives when we are behind the wheel of our vehicles.

As a society we have put blinders on when it concerns traffic fatalities. We have become willing to accept these astonishing numbers as a necessary sacrifice that must be made in order for us to all drive.

Experts tell us that, in reality, very few of these deadly car crashes could be classified as "accidents" in the pure sense of the word. Almost all are the result of distraction, carelessness or recklessness. About 40% of all fatalities are alcohol-related.

Nowadays, our children expect to be given a car for their 16th birthday, moaning that they will not be popular if they don’t have their own vehicle. These are often the same children who cannot sustain self-discipline enough to maintain their grade-point averages, or keep their rooms clean, mow the lawn, or comply with other household rules and standards without being nagged. Why on earth would we send them out, armed with 2000 lb. weapons, when they have shown they cannot resist the urge to act impulsively? Then, if the unthinkable happens and they kill themselves or others on the road, in some way as a society we shrug our shoulders and say, "Oh well. It was an accident."

We secretly can hardly wait until they begin driving so we don’t have to take them to basketball practice or to the mall. It’s a rite of passage. They’ve earned it and we’ve earned it, we think. This year approximately 6,000 of those 16-19 year olds won’t come home alive from one of those outings.

We drive too fast; we no longer obey posted speed limits. We buy radar detectors so we won’t have to pay the lesser consequences of our actions. We daydream or talk on the phone and miss our exits. We have a couple of beers with friends and drive on home. We run yellow and red lights. We laugh about it all with our friends and even with our own children. What do they learn from us?

The sudden and violent deaths that are visited upon our fellow Americans year after year can be prevented. They can be prevented by us all raising our awareness of what we are doing when we are behind the wheel of an automobile. We are all armed and dangerous out there.

Don’t shrug your shoulders and say "Oh well." You can make a difference by paying attention every moment in your car. You can model responsible driving behaviors, you can teach your children that driving is a grave responsibility—not an amusement park ride. You can resolve not to send irresponsible teenagers out to prey on others. We can begin to fight back, to show zero tolerance for drivers who glibly put others at risk of death or dismemberment by their driving.

Pretend this is an anthrax threat. Pretend you are a commercial pilot with 260 lives in your hands. Do whatever it takes to give your utmost attention to driving safely. This is a real threat that is more likely to kill you and your loved ones than anything yet devised by terrorists. Year in and year out we Americans go around attacking each other. Victims of this violence are just as dead as anyone who died September 11th. But as a society we are turning a blind eye to this problem.

Please, put yourself on highest alert.


Marsha A. Willis is author of

The Ethan Chronicles: Requiem for a Life Stolen, ISBN 0-9707194-3-4, 272 pgs., $14.95, www.cassidybooks.com. The book, written like a detective story, describes a family’s journey through the troubling circumstances surrounding the death of their only child in an automobile crash.


Top of Page

Grief
Marsha A. Willis
Most of us would say that Americans have lived a blessed and buffered existence over the last several decades. For the most part we have not been called upon to suffer as a group, and whenever possible we have chosen, as individuals, not to get too close to anyone else’s suffering.

We are not a nation that has grieved openly or together in recent history. Since the so-called "me" generation came of age, there has been plenty of exploration of almost every aspect of our individual lives, including self-fulfillment of almost any flavor. But we don’t ‘do’ grief or death, thank you very much.

Grief is for other people, and we feel very uncomfortable around it. The deeper the grief, the farther we try to get from it. Our society has come to see bereavement as an emotion that threatens our sense of control and empowerment. We tend to avoid people who are grieving because we don’t know what to say to them, and we fear seeing our own vulnerability and mortality reflecting back at us from their eyes.

When my only child, Ethan, 21, was killed in April of 1996 by a speeding motorist, my universe ended. Like most baby boomers, I had been reared with the sense that, although there were injustices in the world, with a little luck and skill I should be able to dodge the obstacles and have a life of fulfillment and plenty. Furthermore, I embraced my childhood upbringing which assured me that, if I did the right thing by people, they would mostly do the right thing in return. Moved by my positive thinking and prayerful life, surely God would shine on me and protect me and my loved ones.

All of a sudden, I was confronted with the crushing pain of losing the person I had most treasured in my life, along with the collapse of many of my deeply held philosophical and spiritual belief systems. On top of that I found that many of the people I had assumed would be with me through the tough times in life mumbled their condolences early on and then left me to sort out the pieces outside their earshot. Within a few months it became apparent that my continued pain was causing others too much discomfort, so they would either control the subject matter, or physically distance themselves from our family.

Of course there were also exceptions—people who knew they weren’t obligated to "fix" the situation with their words or deeds. These people knew that their job as human beings and friends was to listen, to let us talk about Ethan, to mention his name freely because it soothed us, and to donate their conscious presence to the cause of healing. Many of these people themselves had at some time suffered deep losses.

Such friends had no expectations about where I should be in my "grief journey", what I should be talking about, thinking or feeling. Their unconditional presence allowed me to move myself through my darkest hour in a natural, organic way. Any offering of thoughts or applicable passages from the collective wisdom came from their heart in the form of sharing, not from the mind that wants to shape us into a cliché which includes avoidance of pain.

I've come to learn that pain is a natural part of a full existence. It does not have to be avoided either by the person for whom it is immediate or by his or her friends and family. Experience of pain does not mean one has been abandoned by the Spirit. (Some things—such as the atrocities we saw in the terrorist attacks or unwarranted death of children--should cause us pain, and if they do not, then that itself is cause for concern.) Our faith needs to be big and broad enough to include pain, knowing that this powerful emotion, too, can be transformed in multiple ways.

Victims of sudden, violent and unjust death—which can come in the form of murder, car crashes, or terrorism—are likely to act in ways that challenge our relationships to them. Families are plagued by nightmares in which they relive terrible images of their loved one’s death, feelings of impotence, rage, desperation, fury over being cast into a victim’s role, depression, and a sorrow that may well last long beyond what their friends and family find acceptable—if not forever. They may also be coping with personal situations that others are less likely to understand: economic anxiety, an inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, post-traumatic stress symptoms, apathy, irritability, sleep and eating disorders. These manifestations of grief may be hard for their friends and family to be around, and may cause to break apart relationships that cannot adjust.

Unlike those who lose their loved ones on a one-by-one basis, such as from car crashes, murder, or natural death, families of people killed by the terrorists September 11th have been lifted to the status of heroes, in part because we have been forced this time to watch the agony they are enduring. This time we all feel included in the tragedy because we have lived the images and seen the nightmare unfold, along with its many rippling consequences. We have all been victims to greater and lesser degrees, and we feel bereaved. There is an eventual opening and humbling that often comes with that.

There’s a sense that this is a new day for us as a society. In addition to the many other ways in which we have deepened and learned to reach out and share from the heart in this time of great trial, I hope we will find that we’ve become more compassionate in our support of bereaved people everywhere--regardless of the mechanism that delivered their particular blow.


Marsha A. Willis is the author of The Ethan Chronicles: Requiem for a Life Stolen, a creative non-fiction account of the troubling circumstances surrounding the death of her son, her family’s journey from scalding grief through challenging the legal system and looking for meaning, on to acceptance of their new life.

ISBN 0-9707194-3-4. Cassidy Books, 273 pps. $14.95. Available through bookstores, on-line at www.cassidybooks.com or toll-free at (877) 541-6544.


Top of Page